A preschool boy sits, repeatedly banging two pirate figures together. Another child might enact a battle scene punctuated by "Arrrg!" and "Ahoy!" But this boy, who is autistic, can't do that. He can't make the connection between the characters and the script. Undaunted, his teachers make a video of another child playing appropriately with the toy.


by Tammy Hansen    photography by Matthew James Photography


They show it to him, three or four times. Something clicks. The student becomes a mighty fine imaginary swashbuckler. He has learned the basic skill of play.

Fast-forward two years to today: The boy is a successful first grader fully integrated into a general education classroom. With the help of patient instructors using new technologies early in his schooling, this student became a captain of his own destiny.

Never underestimate the power of a really good pirate movie or the ingenuity of a teacher bent on making connections for a special needs student. The video modeling is visual. "A lot of our kids are visual learners," says Brandie Brunni, Division Director of special education programs for the San Joaquin County Office of Education. "Typically, developing children learn through play. With the new developments in research we are able to tap into these modalities," she adds.

Translation: special education teachers are using new tools, from simple exercise equipment to iPads and other electronics, to help their students succeed. These teachers are literally translating what can be a frustratingly difficult world into lessons that special needs students can absorb. Whenever possible the goal is to integrate a special needs child into the general population. In the most severe cases a teacher hopes to simply increase the self-reliance and happiness of a student. Whether it's high or low tech, the aim is the same - success.

New Faces in the Classroom

There were 14,005 of 136,303 students in special education in December of 2010, according to the most recent special education figures available from the California Department of Education. The special needs population is expected to grow in the coming years, due greatly to a rise in autism diagnosis. Districts in San Joaquin County reported a 15 percent annual increase in those children. What that means is more unique students coming soon to a classroom near you, and more visible methods and tools used to enhance their learning experience. A student with autism might sit on an exercise ball instead of in a chair. A student with sensory integration issues might wear headphones to reduce classroom noise. A student with language issues might use an iPad or a simple flip chart to communicate.

Teresa Duff, mother of 17-yearold twins, says her special needs sons benefit from such technologies in different ways. Nicholas has cerebral palsy and processing issues. Writing can be difficult, so he uses a voice recognition program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking in and out of class at Cesar Chavez High School in Stockton. He's in the honors history class. Son Gregory has more severe issues and is a student at Walton Special Center, where teachers are working to increase his communication through switches that signify 'yes' and 'no' responses. Gregory also benefits from physical therapy tools that give him a different perspective.

The Gait Trainer that Gregory uses is a simple support device - no batteries. No bells and whistles. But it's enough to make his mother teary. Unable to move his body, her son spends much of his time viewing the world from a prone position. Getting him on his feet, moving across the room toward some desired object is worth celebrating.

"He just loves being able to see things from a different view," she says, adding that she is a fierce advocate for new technologies for both her boys. "There's even more (technology) out there than we know of," Duff says. "We don't know what is possible until somebody comes in with different views."

Special needs kids are "always in the bleachers. They tend to be really good watchers," says Amy Terra, who teaches medically fragile students at Walton Special Center in Stockton. Terra's goal when using new tools is to get them off the sidelines "doing usual things that create that sense of childhood normalcy. Every child should have those opportunities."

Placing special needs students in general settings makes that possible, says Marshall Elementary special education teacher Rachelle Pappas. Technologies and tools that apply in a specific special needs class are often easily used to help students perform in what special education teachers call the 'general population.' Technology has supported, rather than driven, integration, she says.

"I think more kids are getting integrated out," says Pappas, a teacher for 21 years. "We see integrated preschools."

Terra started her 20-year career in a special education classroom hidden at the back of a school. Today, she sees the students from Kohl Open Elementary rush over to play with their friends next door at Walton. Even before recent upgrades to Walton's 1970's playground, Kohl students preferred it to their own, state-of the-art equipment. "All the kids would run from Kohl's to Walton," she says. "You can see that change of acceptance just because of familiarity. It never happens quickly, but it will happen if you hang around long enough."

Aren't iCool?

Advances in adaptive technologies don't happen in a vacuum. The boom in hand held computing is a boon for special education. Special needs schools that once paid as much as $9,000 dollars for a communication device can get an iPad for a few hundred dollars and a Kindle reader for even less. Dragon Speak once cost $400 dollars. Now you can get it for $100 dollars. Even a cell phone can come in handy, says the county's Brunni. Video modeling movies can be shot on a mobile phone with a built-in video camera. Those technologies, however, need an environment and a teaching staff that support their usage.

If there's a yardstick for the value of new tools in special education, it's Walton, where a much needed $15 million makeover funded by Measure Q has turned a noisy, outdated building into a space where teachers use a variety of tools to expand student independence for children from birth to age 22. The renovations included the new Jean Wilson Early Childhood Center for and several upgrades to classrooms. It's the bathrooms, however, that get the most accolades.

Many students at Walton, which serves up to 300 of the district's most severely disabled students, need diaper changing during the day. What once happened behind notso- private partitions in classrooms now occurs in spacious, Jack-and- Jill rooms between the classes. It's hardly hi-tech, but it matters.

The new changing areas allow the staff to serve students "from that respect and dignity place," says Walton Principal Tom Whitesides. The simple change helped set a tone for new facilities, tools and teaching strategies. New classrooms mean quieter spaces and a separation for students with different needs and grade levels. A motor room offers exercise and a sensory room a quiet space for regrouping.

"The quality of service has increased significantly. It's just night and day," Whitesides says. "We have all these tools in the toolbox."

A favorite tool that is apparent to visitors is the collection of large, electric switches students can use to do everything from request a drink to read a book to feed the classroom pets. A switch; operated by a hand, head or foot; can allow a student to help a bit in preparing lunch or sprinkle glitter on an art project.

"We try to find ways for them to just make choices," Terra says. "These are very basic things that make or break a day and make or break our happiness. When you build opportunities for them to take control of their lives they get really happy."

Technologies to give that control may be more concentrated at Walton, but they play out across the Valley. Pappas points to the computer created artwork on the tee shirts and magnet souvenirs given to students at the Special Needs Prom in early June. A special education student designed the computer artwork.

Terra tells the tale of a special needs student struggling to write out complicated anatomy terms in a weight training class. The adaptive alternative - a diagram of the body with nametags that attached via Velcro - was so successful that the physical education teacher used it for ten other students struggling with the issue. "The teacher ended up keeping it for his regular classroom," Terra says.

Duff says Gregory's teacher at Walton, Gary Dosier, embraces new technologies. Buttons that are designed for Gregory to request food or a drink aren't being used much because of feeding issues. The goal this year is to repurpose them to signify say 'yes' or 'no' responses instead.

"Just for him to be able to ask for what he wants is amazing. I just get excited that he's able to do something different, to do something other kids take for granted," Duff says.

All it takes is one teacher willing to think differently about what a student needs and start working on ways to reach that goal, Duff says. "The teacher makes a huge difference."

A Needy Future

Duff fights every day to get her twins the care and education they need, she says. Her advocacy for Nicholas, who will be a junior next year, is especially fierce. Like many parents, she learned to battle for more help as her children grew up in the program. It took her a while to discover she could ease the backbreaking labor of lifting wheelchairs and kids into her van by getting a note from her doctor specifying her need for an electric lift. It's information she shares freely with other parents with wheelchair bound children. She also pushes for higher expectations of her kids. Nicholas spends half his day in adaptive classes and the other half "mainstreamed" in elective courses. Special education is a label that can lead to low expectations. Duff is having none of that. If there is a new technology that will help Nicholas build on his love for history, she wants it. "He loves history, and he could teach history," Duff says. "He taught the teacher some things."

With the increase in autism spectrum disorder and the continuing budget crunch in California education it's going to be challenging to get the more sophisticated tools that can increase the success of the special education student. Districts already suffering from the crush of lowered budgets often struggle to get new technologies into the hands of teachers who can capitalize on them. They have little choice. The Federal Disabilities Education Act mandates a "free, appropriate public education" within the least restrictive environment that meets their needs. Still, it's estimated that it costs nearly twice as much to educate a special needs student. Meanwhile, the definition of 'appropriate' can be pretty fluid. It's easy for parents and educators to get glum about the prospects for getting new tools into the hands of the students who most need them.

It's important, however, to honor the students using all those new gadgets. Technology is a great tool worth our investment, but only if it is used to increase a special education student's sense of accomplishment, worth and belonging, Terra says. "It all goes back to the human connection. It's about increasing the students' level of participation." I think if you were to take the technology out of it, the kids would still find really cool things to do together," she adds. "The kids are the real magic."

For More Information:
Walton Development Center School
4131 Crown Ave., Stockton
(209) 933-7315
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